whither adventure

Mon, Jan 28, 2008

I used to like winters. I used to climb ice and snow. I used to revel in the wildness of spindrift avalanches on the north face of the Ben, which sucked the breath from my mouth and soaked my stinging face. Nearing the top of a steep climb, sheltered from the south westerly gale, sometimes the only sound was the dull plunk and scrape of the axe searching for purchase on iced rock. The sound of total concentration. I can still hear that sound and the muffled icy rattle of gear. When you’re not sure whether something’s plastic or metal, you give it a tap, see what sound it makes and you get a feel for the substance, it’s depth and quality. It’s the same in winter climbing. When your axe caresses rock and rivulets of powder flow from its pick you feel the huge solidity of the mountain. It reverberates down the shaft. You can suddenly imagine the other side of the mountain, storm lashed and steadfast, sheltering you from the maelstrom. Then your mind compresses back to the task in hand and you thwack into solid ice, pull up and restart the process with the other axe.

I remember the first snows would arrive around the first week of October and the hills became big Christmas cakes, with their black and dun sides and brilliant white tops. Then the November gales would rattle the windows and spindrift plumes would turn Beinn Dorain into Everest, the Buachaille to the Eiger and I would open the great book of north faces and read expectantly as the wind howled round the eaves. December would be grim. Not enough ice to climb winter routes and too dark, cold and wet to climb rock. This was the month of mountaineering club dinners, where friends would gather in cosy highland bars and chink glasses and talk about climbs with overhangs that grew bigger with each pint. The coming winter’s routes would be mapped out. We’d pencil in Point Five on the Ben and Mega Route X, knowing fine well it was John Barleycorn wagging our tongues but we still managed fine routes. Salamander, Look C Gully, Glover’s Chimney, the classics and all in condition.

What future is there for winter walking and climbing in these islands I wonder? Global warming predictions are that low pressure systems will intensify, winds will increase and winters become milder each year. I’ve been noticing the winter weather become more extreme. Ferocious winds and a violently swinging pendulum of freeze/thaw. Huge dumps of snow which never consolidate before melting and flooding the hill sides. Deep deep powder making movement difficult and time consuming and bare rock where there should be ice.

This winter has seen a good dump of snow just after new year when I managed to get out and travel through a myriad of snow structure in the far north. From deep unconsolidated powder, to squeaky windslab, to that awful creme brule crust with random break through, so tiring and frustrating to walk on. It was a typical first real winter day for me, with the heavy boots and heavy sack it was a bit of a plod although a fantastic day out. This week though, following the SAIS blogs, most of the snow is gone and the rest is melting.

The Met Office define winter as December, January and February and their latest prediction is for a milder than average February, so it’s not looking too good for winter conditions although I fully expect the winds to be constant in their scouring, screaming wildness. The word on the streets is snow cover will decrease while wind speeds will increase. A recent survey seems to show a reaction to these emerging weather patterns. It has some interesting claims which are basically that rock climbing is moving progressively indoors while winter climbing is declining.

So what future for adventure in a changing climate? Perhaps the lightweight gear revolution will be reversed. Perhaps you’ll be able to buy graded inserts for your rucksack to stop you being blown away. A BS12 (Beaufort Scale 12) for the Ben please. The wind will indeed play a greater part in outdoor experiences and it will be interesting to see how climate will affect what we do on the hills.

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